When we, as lesbians, participate in and perpetuate institutionalized racism, transphobia, ableism, ageism, etc., we must begin to see that, on a grander scale, we are perpetuating bigotry. Isn’t bigotry what we’re fighting against? If we see the connections between homophobia and transphobia and racism and ableism – that the messages behind these crimes are essentially the same – we will be compelled to fight just as hard against transphobia as we do against homophobia. While discrimination often manifests differently, and to some minorities more aggressively than others, the sentiment is almost always the same. The oppressor sees us as different. Different equals bad, something to be feared, and, therefore, something to get rid of. For these reasons, when we work to combat bigotry of all forms, we work to combat bigotry against ourselves.
James Chase Sanchez, Chicanx doctoral candidate at Texas Christian University and anti-racism activist, has devoted much of his academic study of rhetoric and race. In talking with him, I was able to gain perspective on how white lesbians are perceived in the greater social justice movement as well as the mutual belief of the sameness amongst marginalized groups. Sanchez shares that, “Overall, I believe white lesbians are mostly empathetic to problems in communities of color. The shared oppression and harassment among these groups, the feeling that being “different” in terms of sexuality or skin color has harmed both of us; this unites us more than it divides us. And though there is definitely homophobia among some people of color and some racism among white lesbians, I believe at the core, most of us see each others’ fights as justified and want to be supportive.” I want for Sanchez’s experience to be representative of us all.
In my evolution to become a better ally to communities outside myself, I’ve had some difficult lessons to learn. When I’m engaging in the fight against bigotry directed at me–as a woman, as a lesbian–I am entitled to my own feelings and my own response. I’m not required to justify my reaction to these crimes. However, when I’m engaging in the fight against discrimination directed at groups to which I do not belong, I should only speak to the oppressor, and exercise caution in doing so. It is not my job to tell a black woman how she should feel about racism. It is not my job to tell a trans man how he should respond to a transphobic comment. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. And I’ve had to apologize for it. I learned firsthand how this brand of so-called “allyship” can be unwelcomed, and even counterproductive to the movement. We have to accept that there are elements to what other marginalized groups feel and experience that we will never understand. And, if we can’t acknowledge this, we can’t serve other minorities.
I spoke with a friend, who was born female and now identifies as transmasculine, in an effort to gain more insight on how we can do right by other minorities. Jay Rio lives “socially as a male,” but is “still legally and biologically female” and prefers the pronouns “they/their.” Jay represents the intricate nature of gender and sexuality as they “relate historically…to the sexism and homophobia that lesbians experience.”
Jay is also a person living with a disability. When discussing how cis, able-bodied lesbians can serve the minority communities to which Jay belongs, they shared:
”The biggest way the lesbian community or any community can be supportive of differently gendered or differently abled folks is to listen to their stories. How people relate to their bodies in terms of gender and disability is highly individual. Just because a friend or partner is changing a name or gender marker does not change their love for an individual or a shared community. Those bonds are often beyond words and categories. People need support, especially in times of transition. Honor their love and support by supporting them now. They are not so much changing as becoming more of who they are or were meant to be.”
I believe Jay’s response is invaluable to us as we think about how we can support other marginalized groups. The message is that understanding isn’t always a prerequisite to offering love and support, but listening is non-negotiable.
Recently, I engaged in a political debate with a trusted gay male friend. He is a fellow progressive and feminist identified. During our discussion, we addressed the argument from a feminist perspective. The debate, on his end, quickly turned into a lecture on feminism–in which he was the lecturer, and I was the student. Yes, you read that correctly–a man lectured a woman on the principles of feminism. You can imagine I had no interest in being told why I should feel a certain way because of my gender. I am a feminist and a woman. And I feel how I feel. While I welcome cis men in the women’s movement, I believe it should only be in the context of support. I’m concerned by and untrusting of men who label themselves as feminist leaders.
When we think of the women’s movement from a historical standpoint, it’s clear that male privilege has the power to take over if gone unchecked. I believe, and have seen evidence of, the dangers of a more privileged group intruding upon and overtaking a movement to which they don’t belong. This is not to say that, if we don’t belong to a minority, we can’t fight on their behalf. Rather, we must exercise constant carefulness in the ways in which we offer support.
There is a balance that must be found in how we support minority communities outside of ourselves–between engagement and silence. Engaging ourselves in the fight against oppression, while knowing when to listen, is the only way we can successfully contribute to the movement. Sanchez provides further insight on finding this balance: “We all need to emphasize when to be proactive and when to listen. Many of us see the struggles and want to get involved and, often, we do more harm than good. We silence the voices we are trying to help. We mask their problems and equate them as our own. To be a good ally takes listening with the intent to learn, and that is a two-way street. So my advice would be to become better listeners and allow listening to shape how we help one another.”
Educate, correct, and inform oppressors; listen to and quietly support the oppressed. Bigotry is an enemy which has many layers; we don’t have the luxury of cherry picking which of these we want to fight against.